Residents appalled as open air cinema is granted planning permission on Walthamstow sports field

An open-air cinema has been granted planning permission for screenings this summer to cries of “shame on you”.

Secret Cinema will set up at Low Hall sports ground in Walthamstow from July 5 until September 12, putting 10 football pitches out of action and occupying a large area in the middle of the space.

Waltham Forest Council’s planning committee heard there will be three weeks worth of film screenings every day except Mondays, lasting from 6pm until 10.30pm, with ticket prices ranging from £49 to £89 a head.

Residents implored the planning committee on Tuesday March 30 not to limit their green space but councillors argued cultural offerings were also important to post-lockdown life.

Committee chairman Cllr Jenny Gray said: “We do need cultural activities. Everyone has been locked up for so long, I think people would actually like to go out and have some fun.

“I know it’s expensive, but you have to think about it like a gig or a one-day festival rather than going to the cinema because it’s not just a film screening, it’s an immersive experience.”

Cllr Sally Littlejohn (Lab, Leytonstone) agreed that an outdoor film screening “could be something of a psychological lift” for those who have spent more than a year without events.

She added: “Given there are alternative sports and leisure facilities not far away from this location, this temporary use is quite a positive one.”

Cllr Marie Pye (Lab, Leytonstone) reminded objectors that councillors could only refuse permission on “planning grounds”, regardless of their personal feelings about the event.

But neighbours and even ward councillors were vehement in their opposition to the event, with one objector yelling “shame on you” at councillors after they granted permission.

One objector, Lara Pawson, had told the committee: “It’s a fact that Waltham Forest is among the most deprived areas in the country when it comes to access to green space.

“Low Hall Fields is Metropolitan Open Land and, in defending their desire to hand over half of it for three months, planning officers point to what they call special circumstances.

“The circumstances we find ourselves in are indeed special. During the last year of lockdown, report after report has shown that local green spaces are quite literally keeping us sane.

“In summer, this space is brimming with sports players, dog walkers, picnickers, readers and even golfers.”

John Mannion, from Coppermill Swifts FC, said the community sports initiative “cannot operate without Low Hall” and would struggle to use the alternative sites suggested by officers.

He said: “You do not seriously want me to tell kids, most of whose parents do not have cars, that because the field they normally walk to is closed off for a private event, they can no longer play with their mates.”

He urged Secret Cinema to “go to another larger area that can sustain a site as large as yours”, adding: “You have the choice to go elsewhere, we do not.”

Objector James Cheshire pointed out the company’s plans to provide access for trucks to the site seem to necessitate removing 100 new saplings, although council officers said they could not offer clarity on this point.

Cllr Alan Siggers (Con leader, Valley), the only committee member to vote against the application, expressed scepticism about the company’s plan to use local suppliers, arguing it would already have established relationships with many companies.

In response, Secret Cinema’s Rob Haworth insisted the company had already found “three suppliers in the local industrial estate alone” that it is “very keen to work with”.

A licensing application allowing Secret Cinema to serve alcohol and provide live entertainment on the site was approved in January this year, to similar objections from residents.

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Victoria Munro

Local Democracy Reporter